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June 10, 2016

Mass. Senate passes sweeping zoning reform bill

Courtesy Photo

The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday approved a sweeping zoning reform bill that supporters said will spur the development of affordable housing and encourage sustainable growth, but even those supporters admitted the chances of the bill becoming law this session are slim.

The bill (S 2311) attempts to rein in restrictive local zoning regulations and incentivize communities to plan for sustainable growth. Though the bill's supporters and detractors agreed that after more than 40 years Massachusetts needs to freshen up its zoning laws, opponents of the bill said it could lead to confusion for municipalities, greater barriers to development and litigation.

The bill was passed on a 23-15 vote, with Democratic Sens. Jennifer Flanagan, Anne Gobi, John Keenan, Michael Rodrigues, Michael Rush, James Timilty, Michael Moore, Eileen Donoghue and Jason Lewis joining the chamber's six Republicans in opposing the bill.

Ahead of Thursday's debate, supporters said that the fact that almost everyone could find something to like and something to dislike about the bill showed that it was balanced and comprehensive.

"This bill is the result of decades of hard work and dialog between many stakeholders, near and far," Sen. Dan Wolf of Harwich said. "At the table have been advocates and representatives from our towns and cities and their planners, from the environmental community, from real estate organizations and individuals, from our developers and builders, from housing advocates, from various state and local government agencies, from transportation experts and from those who continue to define and refine smart growth, what it means and how we achieve it."

Some opponents, like Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, said they could support some parts of the bill, but were left with concerns too significant to ignore.

Tarr said some in his district told him they were worried the bill would be "simply a case of land use lasagna -- where we layer on one piece after the other piece after the other piece after the other piece and we send forth from Beacon Hill something that no one understands and everyone is trying to sort out and implement."

Of the 63 amendments filed to the bill, the one that garnered the most passionate debate was a Sen. Lewis amendment that would have created a special commission to review Chapter 40B -- the state's affordable housing law -- and the many court cases, laws and regulations that have affected it since it was enacted in 1969.

The most forceful voice in opposition to the amendment was Sen. Kenneth Donnelly, who argued a commission is unnecessary to identify the problems that are already known. He also said it would not be right to adopt the amendment related to Chapter 40B after members were told no 40B amendments would be considered and several had been withdrawn or rejected.

"Today is not 40B day," Sen. Mark Montigny said in arguing for the amendment's defeat. "But when 40B day comes, there ought to be reform."

Republicans and Democrats responded that it would be odd to not allow amendments related to affordable housing on a bill that has the word 'housing' in its title.

"I think it is fair to say we can't really address the totality of zoning without discussing 40B," Sen. Vinny deMacedo, a Plymouth Republican, said.

The Lewis amendment failed on the narrowest of votes, 19-20. Sen. Thomas McGee of Lynn was the lone senator not voting.

Marc Draisen, who as executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council has been among the coalition pushing for the bill's passage for months, called the bill "a truly landmark piece of legislation" that will help cities and towns.

Draisen said he hoped the House and Governor would act on the bill before formal sessions ends in July.

But as the bill heads to the House, it faces long odds of becoming law by the time formal sessions end in July. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said Monday he heard from "a number of folks, developers, builders and what not" who want to bend his ear about the bill.

"So at this time I don't know," said DeLeo, whose chamber has its own priorities for the remaining weeks of formal sessions.

Even in the Senate chamber Thursday, members suggested that the Senate should play the long game -- pass the bill this session knowing it is unlikely to become law and then perfect it next session with the hopes of it reaching the governor's desk.

"What this discussion has clearly exposed is the complexity and political difficulty of this bill," Sen. William Brownsberger said during the debate on Lewis's Chapter 40B amendment. "And the prospect that this bill will get across to the governor's desk through the House process and through a conference process, with everything else that's going on, by July 31 I think we can all recognize is very slim."

Brownsberger hinted that the key to getting comprehensive zoning reform done next session could be incorporating some elements of Chapter 40B reform into the zoning bill.

"One of the decisions that was made in the drafting of this legislation was to keep 40B out of the equation," he said. "But I think in the long-term conversation about this issue it is entirely possible that bringing 40B into the equation could be the way to give the impetus for municipalities to buy into this legislation that could lead to its ultimate passage."

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